Mideast uprisings aren't all cut from the same cloth
From a distance we see that much of the Middle East is in turmoil. Certainly what started in Tunisia and migrated to Egypt -- popular uprisings against aging, undemocratic regimes -- is now in evidence from Yemen to Libya. But it is important to understand not only the general phenomenon but the distinctions among countries.
Libya is aflame. As the Post reports:
Libyan leader Moammar Gaddafi's regime showed more signs of crumbling Monday following a volatile night in which dozens were reportedly killed in the capital and Gaddafi's son and heir-apparent declared in a televised speech that the North African nation could fall into anarchy if his father was ousted.
By Monday morning, the six-day-old uprising had reached the capital, Tripoli, amid reports of buildings being set ablaze and looting in some neighborhoods. In Libya's second-largest city of Benghazi, anti-government demonstrators celebrated on the streets, as reports grew that the city was now under their control.
The brutality of the regime's crackdown and hundreds of deaths have prompted mournful expressions from the Obama administration. ("State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said the United States is 'gravely concerned' and has received 'multiple credible reports that hundreds of people have been killed and injured.'") Our ability to influence events there is nil.
Jonathan Schanzer of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies e-mails me: "We have little to no leverage in Libya." He explains, "Everything was controlled by Qaddafi and his clique. The country could quickly become a failed state if it collapses." The ramifications could be quite serious, and not only because of Libya's oil production. Schanzer tells me that "the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group, an affiliate of al-Qaeda that has now seen dozens if not hundreds of cadres freed from jail in Benghazi," poses a threat to the entire region.
By contrast, we do hold some sway in Bahrain. As Schanzer tells me, a naval base, 6,000 U.S. troops and the Fifth Fleet, which is based there, give us substantial interests and influence. Yesterday the State Department put out this statement:
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton spoke by phone today to Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal. In discussing regional developments with her Saudi counterpart, the Secretary underscored the necessity of restraint by the security forces in Bahrain. She also noted that the United States has welcomed steps by Bahraini Crown Prince Salman bin Hamad al-Khalifa to initiate a meaningful dialogue with the full spectrum of Bahraini society. Secretary Clinton expressed hope that Bahrain's friends in the region and internationally will support this initiative as a constructive path to preserve Bahrain's stability and help meet the aspirations of all of Bahrain's people. The Secretary also indicated that the United States is encouraged by reports His Majesty King Abdullah will return soon to Saudi Arabia.
And we do see signs of restraint, as the New York Times reported over the weekend:
Thousands of jubilant protesters surged back into the symbolic heart of Bahrain on Saturday as the government withdrew its security forces, calling for calm after days of violent crackdowns.
It was a remarkable turn after a week of protests that had shifted by the hour between joy and fear, euphoric surges of people power followed by bloody military crackdowns, as the monarchy struggled to calibrate a response to an uprising whose counterparts have toppled other governments in the region.
If Libya is at one extreme (in terms of violence and the fragility of the regime), Morocco may be at the other. I spoke by phone this morning with Ed Gabriel, a former U.S. ambassador to Morocco and now an adviser to its government,. He was in Rabat and was present at the demonstrations. He described the protesters, numbering about 5,000 (there were 8,000 to 10,000 nationwide) as peaceful, calm and rather "festive."
In contrast to other Arab countries, the police presence was virtually nonexistent. Gabriel told me that although there may have been non-uniformed forces within the crowd, he "couldn't count ten uniformed policemen." The protesters filled up about three blocks. Moroccan flags were plentiful, but Gabriel spotted one Tunisian flag, one Palestinian banner and one for the Berber people. Individual groups marched behind banners. Gabriel says one of the groups directed its message against certain political groups and politicians. Another was obviously focused on complaints against the government, bearing messages about "freedom, democracy and jobs." Gabriel estimated there were about 1,000 Islamists within the protest. They held the most aggressively worded signs and the only one Gabriel saw directed at the King of Morocco -- "Dictator dégagé" (roughly, "dictator, clear out.") In contrast to Rabat, there were reports of violence in Tangiers,Tetouan, and Marrakesh, where rocks were thrown and a gas station and prefecture's office were set ablaze. There were no deaths in any of the 11 cities where demonstrations took place.
Gabriel reported that the streets in Rabat and elsewhere were devoid of protesters today, suggesting this may have been a one-day affair. Nevertheless, Gabriel sees the demonstrations as "a true expression of the needs of the people," with a focus on jobs, corruption and the desire for "a government that addresses the needs of the people." As of this writing, there was no official reaction from the king or his government, but Gabriel suggested that the government "will react favorably" and that the restraint exercised by the majority of the protesters gained them "a good listening audience." He told me that judicial reform (ensuring that judges are independent and well-trained and that corrupt judges are removed) would "get at so many problems."
So what is to be learned by all of this? Well, it's hard to escape the conclusion that the United States' reliance on autocratic regimes has largely been a failure and has left the United States with little influence and few friends in the region. Time will tell whether Morocco's experience is one more example of "Moroccan exceptionalism" in the Middle East (as evidenced by its family law reforms and protection for religious minorities) or whether it provides a model for more gradual reform and stability in the region.
UPDATE (2:00 p.m.): Recent news reports tell us there have been deaths in Morocco and the total number of protestors is higher than first reported. CNN reports: "Five charred bodies were found Monday in a Moroccan bank that burned down during protests the day before, Morocco's state-run news agency reported, citing the country's interior minister. The bodies were found in a bank in the town of Al Hoceima in northern Morocco, Interior Minister Taib Cherkaoui told reporters on Monday. He said the acts of vandalism followed the peaceful protests in at least six cities Sunday, according to Agence Maghreb Arabe Presse. He estimated that about 37,000 people participated in the protests nationwide."
Posted by: eoniii | February 21, 2011 1:38 PM | Report abuse
Posted by: K2K2 | February 21, 2011 1:41 PM | Report abuse
Posted by: Nikos_Retsos | February 21, 2011 2:37 PM | Report abuse
Posted by: aardunza | February 21, 2011 3:49 PM | Report abuse
Posted by: aardunza | February 21, 2011 4:01 PM | Report abuse
Posted by: aardunza | February 21, 2011 4:10 PM | Report abuse
Posted by: Shingo1 | February 21, 2011 5:56 PM | Report abuse
Posted by: Shingo1 | February 21, 2011 6:01 PM | Report abuse
Posted by: samuel-lary | February 25, 2011 12:43 PM | Report abuse
Posted by: samuel-lary | February 25, 2011 1:07 PM | Report abuse